From the Desk of Barbara Robertson

Most Americans view the nation’s system of colleges and universities as a kind of invulnerable redoubt. That is, they believe it is generally impervious to erosive social forces by virtue of its central – many would say indispensable – role as an economic engine.

This assumption will likely be tested in the coming years. Unthinkable though the idea once was, our postsecondary education system is facing the very real possibility of a dramatic restructuring that could result in markedly fewer sites of higher learning among other far-reaching effects.

The immediate challenge is financial fallout from the pandemic. Colleges and universities increasingly find themselves caught between divergent fiscal plights, forced to invest in remote instruction and vast new testing and vaccination programs on one hand, while being deprived of revenue from reduced campus operations on the other. Meeting the increased financial aid needs of students is another pressure point.

In a recent survey of more than 700 higher education professionals by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 74 percent of respondents pointed to financial constraints as the most significant issue facing their school. Moreover, many are beginning to worry about lasting impacts. In the same survey, 60 percent of respondents indicated they are very concerned about the overall financial stability of their institution.

They are right to be apprehensive, especially given the fact that some schools are still shaking off the effects of the last economic downturn. A recent Santa Barbara Independent article on the shortage of undergraduate course offerings this fall at UCSB, for instance, cited thinned faculty ranks and budget cutbacks stemming from the 2008 recession as major contributing factors.

Longer term, the more consequential peril confronting colleges and universities is declining enrollment, a trend expected to accelerate as the nation’s population ages. This so-called enrollment crunch, together with the growing acceptance of online learning, poses an existential threat to the traditional, infrastructure-intensive model for delivering postsecondary instruction. Citing these very developments, the late business theorist Clayton Christensen famously predicted that half of all U.S. colleges and universities would go bankrupt by the year 2032.

While I doubt Christensen’s prediction will prove accurate, I am convinced we have a looming crisis on our hands. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the industry is already contracting, shedding 2.3 percent of public four-year universities in just the last year.

If we value our colleges and universities in their current form, and in the main I believe we do, we must begin planning now for further enrollment drops and technological disruptions. Blinding ourselves to these challenges is a recipe for institutional failure on a truly large scale.

Higher education is as important as ever, and some argue that structural reforms are overdue. Perhaps, but we must protect our nation’s colleges and universities as well.